It takes a lot of different skills to be a good filmmaker. That’s probably why it takes so long. You have to be a storyteller, an entrepreneur, a problem solver, a marketer, a networker…the list goes on. It’s a very hard job. So it might seem strange for us to say that of all the skills you could be practicing every day, writing is probably the most beneficial. And it will sound especially strange if writing isn’t something you particularly care about doing in the first place. But hear us out. The discipline of writing often is not about becoming a better writer (although that could be a cool bonus, if you’re lucky). It’s about becoming a better thinker ⎯ maybe even a better person.
Writing forces you to confront your thoughts and beliefs about the big truths of the world. It forces you to confront yourself. That’s what’s great about it. But, perhaps more importantly, writing is the foundation for originality. Beyond the simple act of speaking, it’s the most direct way of communicating difficult, brilliant, and possibly illuminating ideas just from the practice. But try not to think about that too much. For now, just focus on the scribbling.
Most people think they’re pretty good singers. This has something to do with the way your voice resonates inside your skull. It’s a lie born in our bone structure. And that’s why when you hear your voice played back from a recording it’s pretty shocking. The truth is most people aren’t good singers. Most people are bad singers. And the same principle applies to our ideas. Things usually sound great inside our heads. So it can be a huge disappointment to see them on the page, out there in the real world. Suddenly they don’t sound so clever or as interesting or as intelligent. Suddenly, they sound dumb. This is a good thing. People become better singers by forcing themselves to sing. And facing your bad ideas is how you make them good ideas. But you have to get them out there first. You have to write them down.
Anyone who’s ever made a film, even a short film, knows the process is maddeningly slow. It takes forever. And it’s expensive. The great thing about writing is how free it is. Totally free. And how fast. On the page, you can try out scenes or sequences as quickly as you can type. You can rearrange things, delete things, create things ⎯ almost instantaneously, with zero financial risk. One of the only ways to become a good storyteller is to tell a lot of stories. Writing a lot allows you to build up your storytelling experience without simultaneously building up a crushing mountain of high-interest debt.
Usually when people start writing regularly, their writing is full of clichés. They have some idea of what writing should sound like, and they try to sound like that rather than sounding like themselves. That’s okay. The only way to find your own voice is to use it often. One of the great benefits of writing a lot is that you’ll start spotting clichés from a mile away ⎯ if only because you’re so sick and tired of using them yourself. Cotton candy stops tasting good when you eat it every day. Writing a lot forces you to say things that are true and original. These virtues will filter into the rest of your life as well. Your filmmaking included.
When you write, you are forced to confront the artist’s worst fear: you have nothing to say. Writing is one way to find what you have to say.
A lot of films are pretty vapid when you peel back all the gloss and sheen and aftereffects. It’s always easier to wow people than to create something that lasts and resonates. Writing forces you to strip away all of that razzle-dazzle. There aren’t many devices to hide behind on the page. There’s no new technology to distract people. When you write, you are forced to confront the artist’s worst fear: you have nothing to say. And that might be true. You might not have anything to say. Not yet. Writing is one way to find what you have to say.
Filmmaking is a spectator sport. Whether you’re raising money or shooting a café scene, everybody sees you doing it. Everybody wants to know how it turns out. Everybody has an opinion about it. Writing can be ⎯ maybe should be ⎯ extremely private. Entire novels are written and discarded, and nobody’s the wiser. In other words, this is a pure creative space unhindered by expectations. This is where you can do exactly what you want to do. Say exactly what you want to say. Be completely yourself. And there is nothing more artistically valuable than being completely yourself.
Okay, so maybe you want to give this “writing every day” thing a try. Maybe you’re wondering what you should do next and how to proceed. Well, it’s as simple as it sounds. You sit down every day and you write something. You make it your own. There are no rules. That being said, one of these tips might help:
This is basic habit-forming wisdom. If you want to make this happen every day, then you have to set aside time for it. We’d recommend the early morning. Nobody expects anything from you before 8 a.m. Nobody sets meetings that early. You should be able to make a regular thing of this without sacrificing anything else in your life, save a little bit of sleep.
The best way to write poorly is to worry about writing poorly. What is “good writing” anyway? Who cares! The point of this discipline is not to write well. The point is to write. The “well” part will take care of itself eventually, once you stop worrying about it.
Try writing a letter every day...write to someone you know. It will force you to sound like yourself.
One of the benefits we forgot to mention is that writing a lot can force you to see what’s special about seemingly mundane things. You don’t need to write something epic or dramatic or emotional. Write about growing up. Write about what happened last week. Re-create a weird conversation you had. Allen Ginsberg had something great to say about this: “And the hypocrisy of literature has been...you know like there’s supposed to be formal literature, which is supposed to be different from ⎯ in subject, in diction and even in organization, from our quotidian inspired lives. It’s also like in Whitman, ‘I find no fat sweeter than that which sticks to my own bones,’ that is to say the self-confidence of someone who knows that he’s really alive, and that his existence is just as good as any other subject matter.” Your existence is fantastic subject matter.
You have to give yourself time to dig out the good stuff. Usually that means staring at your screen for a while. Maybe after 30 minutes you get one good sentence. That’s fine. It’s a good day anytime you get anything at all. Be thankful for that sentence. But set aside the 30 minutes to find it ⎯ 30 minutes at least.
Writing isn’t very fun. Also, it’s humiliating. You will feel an almost unbearable urge to look at your Facebook page. That’s your brain trying to dodge its responsibilities. Don’t let it. Keep staring at your screen. Don’t look away. Your boredom will be rewarded.
If this whole thing seems kind of pointless, try writing a letter every day instead. Write to someone you know. It will force you to sound like yourself. Tell them about your day, your family, your job, the weather, whatever. For some reason, it’s so much easier to tell what’s interesting and worthwhile when you think about communicating to a real person.
Or use an app. Have some running document where you keep ideas for things to write about. Maybe a weird thing you overheard on the train. Maybe a description or realization that came to you. Maybe the link to a news story you can’t stop thinking about. Usually, the things you need to write about will stick with you, and you won’t need to look back at your notes; but it’s better to be safe. Write it down.
In some way, all forms of creativity force us to come to terms with ourselves and with the world around us. That’s probably why we all love making things. But writing is unique because it’s so uncool. There’s nothing inherently impressive about it ⎯ not the way a photograph or film or drawing can impress you and you don’t even know why. Writing doesn’t work that way. It lives and dies solely on the writer’s ability to say something that is, for some reason, worth saying. When you apply that substance to your films, you can create something that is both breathtaking and worthwhile.
On Writing Well, William Zinsser ⎯ A classic. It offers brass-tacks advice on writing nonfiction that can be applied to any form of writing. Your sentences will never be the same.
Zen in the Art of Writing, Ray Bradbury ⎯ This book completely contradicts all the stuff we said above about writing being painful. Ray Bradbury loved writing. This book might make you love it too. It’s much more spiritual than technical, as the title suggests.
On Writing, Stephen King ⎯ Another classic. Part memoir, part craft notes. It might make you drop filmmaking for good and start writing horror stories. You don’t need Kickstarter to write a horror story.
Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott ⎯ Anne is a fantastic writer and teacher. This book is full of practical wisdom not just about writing, but about life.